When team building goes awry

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HR regularly allocates large budgets to corporate team building activities, and has big ideas on how to host the perfect activity.

Gabriel Edwards, business development manager at Circus Oz’s High Flying Teams & managing director Engaging People, told HRM Online that while team development is a business critical process, it’s often offered by an unregulated industry that offers a wide range of experiences (some positive and some not so) without necessarily understanding the realities of business teams and their needs and challenges. 

Edwards said this has led to confusion by employers and employees about what team building is and is not, and what the outcomes of team building should be.

For this reason, it’s worthwhile considering what you don’t want team building days to turn into – because a badly executed event can have disastrous consequences.

In an extreme example of team building gone horribly wrong, a Californian woman was last year awarded $1.4m after being subjected to humiliation during a company teambuilding event.

Janet Orlando, 57, was a saleswoman for security company Alarm One Inc, and a Superior Court jury found that she should be awarded damages after she was ‘spanked’ in front of her co-workers with a competitor’s yard sign.

Her lawyer commented at the trial, “They made a middle-aged woman go in front of mostly male co-workers between the ages of 18 and 24, bend over, put her hands on the wall and spanked her with a metal sign.”

Her employer claimed it was just a camaraderie-building exercise. Orlando said she was embarrassed, permanently scarred and mentally anguished by the fraternity-like atmosphere and sales-building exercises at the team building event.

David Jacobson, owner and founder of New York-based corporate event planning company, TrivWorks, set out a glimpse of what the very worst imaginable employee team building event would look like. Unfortunately, some of his points are all too common:

  • Attendees have had no input as to the event’s activity, nor do they know the goals

  • Attendance is mandatory, under threat of disciplinary action

  • Event is held at a location with no mobile/Internet service three hours away, on a holiday weekend, during the height of the busy season, amidst a major client crisis

  • The environment is sparse, uninviting and uncomfortable; there aren’t enough seats, grotty bathroom facilities, etc.

  • The tone is serious and authoritarian from the start, with no fun or social elements at all – just a cold, hard look at what has to change, or else

  • Talk centres strictly on what’s wrong with the team, company or industry –  or even worse, focuses on the flaws of teams & individuals who are present

  • A poorly planned, one-size-fits all activity with zero customization – in fact, it’s the exact OPPOSITE of what would be appropriate for the group’s age, demographic, interests and dynamic

  • The hired team building “experts” have no clue what they’re doing, the activity is boring, offensive & poorly run, and attendees are tuned out from the get go

  • Exercises are held outside in inclement weather, requiring lots of exertion – think a 100-degree day with 100% humidity, a freezing cold day or a torrential rainstorm

  • Activities are extremely physically demanding, requiring the group’s older, infirm or disabled members to sit the event out

  • Individuals are isolated alone to work on individual projects for extended periods of time, actually preventing collaboration, communication and teamwork

  • Not enough food, drinks or breaks for the duration of the event

  • Senior managers aren’t present – in fact, they are off having their own “team building” dinner at a fancy restaurant

  • Employees actually leave feeling more disconnected, demoralized and insecure about their abilities to work together as a team than when they arrived

These are of course extreme examples, but by considering the worst team building event imaginable, it becomes clear what you want to avoid when planning/running employee activities, to make sure that yours produce the exact opposite – the best team building experience possible for your staff.

For more team building and corporate event tips, click here.


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